When Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire and owner of the English Premier League’s Chelsea Football Club, appeared to have posted a Google review complaining that a Manitoba moving company lost three of his watches, Chris Pereira knew something was wrong.
The oligarch had never been a customer at Riverbend Moving and Storage, a small business that offers residential and commercial moving services in Winnipeg. The review was fake, and fit a pattern that Pereira, the company’s vice president of sales, had been observing for months — a slew of made-up complaints targeting the company’s online reputation.
The incident is just one example of a widespread problem that’s plaguing Google’s popular star-rating system — a growing black market in which some companies pay for fake positive reviews, while others are seemingly being extorted by web firms who post negative comments then propose their “review-fixing” services to get them taken down.
Using data gathering and analysis techniques, a CBC News investigation has catalogued just a portion of one fake review network: 1,279 businesses across North America connected by 208 fake accounts that posted 3,574 fake reviews.
One fake review account found by CBC News uses the name Nelly Walker, but has a photo of Dorothy Height, a civil rights activist and contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., who died in 2010. (Google My Business)
To the average consumer scrolling through Google reviews for a local business, those…